Columns » Max Brantley

Care to gamble?

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For a state known for its religious conservatism and electoral opposition to casino gambling, there sure is a lot of talk about gambling in Arkansas.

Maybe that’s because casino operators can read. They see the Arkansas license plates in the casinos in Louisiana and Mississippi and in the parking lots of the convenience stores in neighboring states that sell Powerball lottery tickets.

Bill Halter, a candidate for lieutenant governor, is talking up a state lottery as a way to raise money for worthy causes like education. A Texas businessman has won approval for a constitutional amendment to legalize a state lottery and, not incidentally, set him up as the czar of casinos in several Arkansas counties. All he needs are 80,000 signatures and a willing electorate.

An Oklahoma Indian tribe thinks it’s found a way to build a casino on the riverfront in Fort Smith. Some federal and state hurdles remain.

This activity is spurred by the significant increase in the casino-style gambling that’s already taken place in Arkansas.

Since 2000, so-called Instant Racing has been a growing factor in profits at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs and Southland Greyhound Park in West Memphis. This began as pari-mutuel wagering on videos of previously run horse races. But it has evolved into little more than glorified slot parlors, with games such as Yukon Willie’s Gold Rush; Wild West Willie’s Lucky Draw; Cash Carnival; Treasure Quest; Cruisin’ For Cash; Instant Double; and Triple Instant Double. One popular Oaklawn game has a gambler betting whether the next card dealt is higher or lower than the card exposed. Since the wagering is nominally pari-mutuel — all money in a “betting pool” is distributed after 17 percent of the money is pulled out for the track and tax man — it is presumed legal under Arkansas law. So far, nobody has gone to court to argue that this is a sham.

Emboldened and enriched by Instant Racing — a state official told me it’s more profitable than “real” horse racing at Oaklawn — the race tracks jammed a bill through the 2005 legislature, with the governor’s connivance, to allow “electronic games of skill” at the tracks. Forget the pari-mutuel wrinkle. These will be slots that pay Vegas-style, according to a predetermined percentage set by the track. To pass legal muster, the games must have some element of skill, not be pure slot machines. The rules are still being finalized, but video poker and blackjack seem likely to be jingling at Oaklawn and Southland as early as next fall. Any suggestion that skill determines the outcome is only an illusion. The machines will be set to pay off a predetermined amount of the time — 83 percent at a minimum. The rules now under review even allow a “game of chance” as a bonus feature for a win on the “game of skill.”

Casino-style operations with hundreds, if not thousands, of these machines should be operating at Oaklawn and Southland by the fall. Ironically, this could open the door to more gambling in Arkansas. If that Indian tribe can get established in Arkansas, it MUST be permitted to engage in the same type of gambling allowed elsewhere in the state. Video poker. Instant Racing. Oaklawn’s high-low card game. Any resemblance between those games and pure lotteries will be noted by the Indians, you can be sure, and reflected in the “gaming” they offer.




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